Kennerton Audio are a new name to me, a higher end division of the Russian company Fischer Audio (also a new name to me) but apparently a big deal in the headphone/in ear phones world, a world I confess I know precious little about.
I think it only fair to say right from the get go that I am not a Head-Fi kind of audiophile, never have been and I can’t see that changing much in the future. I prefer, unless forced to, to listen to music through speakers in the room acoustic, but I am well aware that many folks have no choice but to use headphones due to environmental conditions, which prevent or limit speaker use. There is also the fact that the ever increasingly prevalent use of portable/phone based audio sources demand ever increasing amounts of headphones. I don’t think there has ever been a time when there has been so many choice in the headphone market.
I am not a user of portable audio sources – I once owned a cassette walkman, then a CD walkman but they saw little use – but I do have a number of USB DACs equipped with headphone outputs, and a dedicated Audio Valve RKV mk2 and its matching headphone impedance/speaker adaptor – bought during a moment of madness. I used one of these DACs during the review and the RKV, but I also used Kennerton Audio’s Ego headphone amplifier and DAC for much of the review – the obvious match, perhaps ? As the Ego was supplied at the same time as the Magister’s it seemed rude not to review it as well.
As this is my first headphone review, please be kind, because I am painfully aware of my lack of experience in this area of audio, my not having heard too many of the current reference headphones, and this I am aware puts me at somewhat of a disadvantage to others who may review or have reviewed the Magister’s (1). However I will put into this review my normal methodology and approach, one that has served me well before, in the hope I write a meaningful and useful review.
My references re headphones during this review were my Grado GS1000’s (also bought during the same moment of madness as the RKV) and a long owned and cherished pair of Sennheiser HD560 Ovation’s.
Description and Technology – Magister Headphones.
Kennerton Audio Magister headphones are beautiful, well to my eyes they are. I love nods to the past, and these ooze retro, but the styling here is not just skin deep, more than just marketing lip service to the past but in fact crucial to the way these headphones work and sound.
Kennerton Audio say this about the Magister …
‘This Hi-End model has a spotless high-class style and sound. MAGISTER can be with equal success used both at home and in a studio. The model is equipped only with the best materials and components.
The heart of the headphones is a unique driver with a titan dome which allows to achieve spotless sound with extremely low distortion level. Headband and ear cups cushions are made of natural calf leather.
These unique headphones are hand assembled in Russia, by joint efforts of Kennerton and Fischer Audio teams. Swedish pragmatism combined with Russian workmanship will touch the feelings of every real judge of high-quality things.’
Kennerton Audio use 2000 year old bog oak for the Magister’s enclosures, in which the drive units are mounted and the quality this material brings to the headphones is magical, the plaque mounted within could have cheapened the look but instead it simply looks wonderful. Of course beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but this beholder was falling in love with these headphones upon removing them from their nice carry case.
The Magister Headphone Ear cushions are ‘handcrafted from high-quality natural soft lamb skin that provides the maximum comfort, hypoallergic and toughness.
Internal filler is made from special acoustic material that provides excellent acoustic characteristics.’
Handling these headphones is a very tactile experience, every part feels solid and well put together, fit and finish easily match and excel the asking price. The 3m long cable is a nice well made one, with a screw on quarter inch jack, covering the mini jack within, both parts are gold plated. I guess for some these might be too long, especially if you are using a portable device but for audiophiles using a headphone amp, at home, this cable is a perfect length. It should be said though that my Grado GS1000s came with several cable options including a longer cable, so maybe Kennerton could/should include a shorter one for those who don’t mind walking the streets looking like some new breed of Cyberman.
However as wonderful as these look the proof in the pudding will be how they sound and importantly how comfortable they are to wear. I have in the past suffered from rapid sweaty ears syndrome while trying some makes of headphones, so I was particularly interested in how these would work regarding that, both for short term listening and in the long term.Description and Technology – Ego Headphone amplifier/DAC.
The Ego is a compact, but robust item, with some weight to it and a nicely made brushed aluminium body, 11cm w, 5cm h, 11cm d. The front fascia is clean with just a silver volume control with a nice smooth easy action, and a full size headphone jack – I dislike tiny jacks. The sides are smooth with the exception of the right side, which has a small round window showing the 6N2 valve within. The rear panel has a USB input, a single pair of RCA inputs, a selector switch, a mini power input jack + on/off switch – power is supplied via a small external PSU. As there is no RCA audio output this item can’t be used as a source except for the headphones connected to it.
This might be an oversight depending on what the end user has in mind. Kennerton Audio have designed this to be a headphone amp first and foremost, not a PC Audio DAC for connecting up to an external amplifier as a source.
‘This device represents a rather compact but at the same time high-quality solution for home & personal audio system. It was designed basing on hybrid scheme with a valve preamp and transistor output stage operating in unconditional “Class A”. Since EGO is a high power device, it copes with complex loads easily and demonstrates fabulous sound quality. The device has a built-in USB-DAC and can be used as a high-quality external sound card for a PC or a laptop.’
The Ego is a nice looking item, but seems a bit limited, within the general market expectation for such a product these days. However as with all things audio listening will tell the full tale if performance outweighs a slight lack of features.
The main system I used was my Sony Vario VPCEB4E4E laptop, its internal hard drive upon which I had a mixture of music stored. J River 17 was the playback server, with playback optimised by Fidelizer. The USB connecting cable was a Wireworld Ultra Violet. Headphone amplifier used was the Kennerton Ego. The second system used consisted of an: Accuphase DP57 CD player, the analogue only Audio Valve RKV mk2 headphone amplifier and Audio Valve impedance matching box, signal cabling was Audience AU24 RCA to RCA. Mains cables Audience AU24. Equipment table is a Target Audio B5.
Music – Audio Files and CDs.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Dead Can Dance – Into The Laybrinth
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Iona – Treasures
As I stated in the preamble of this review, I approached this listening task with a degree of trepidation simply because headphone listening is not my natural preference and my lack of knowledge I felt might preclude me from doing a quality review. Because of this being honest I was initially reluctant to do this review despite having agreed to, however once I had removed the Magister’s from their packaging, ran my fingers over the beautiful wood I knew I had to listen to them, and as such sharing my thoughts would be the logical thing to do.
Getting the Magister’s up and running was a fairly simple matter, as I decided from the get go to use the Ego amplifier/DAC, the logical choice for the Kennerton headphones, first before using my Audio Valve RKV mk11.
The Ego doesn’t require any special driver to be downloaded so using it really means just plugging it into your laptop. I opted to use a Wire World Ultra Violet cable, plugged it in and powered the Ego up. As there is no power-on indicator light on the Ego the only way to know its on is via the soft glow of the valve seen through its display window.
I use JRiver 17 on this particular laptop and after a bit of fiddling around I had the Ego and Magister pairing working via Kernal Streaming which to my ears consistently sounded better than the other options available. The Ego doesn’t work on ASIO, nor Null Output, but it works fine on Direct, Wasapi, Waspai Event Style, and Wave Out.
One thing I will mention, changing tracks on JRiver while using Kernal resulted in a moments noise as the track transition occurred, this was not the case using any of the other option settings. I don’t know why this occurred but it did, to my ears however Kernal’s sound quality advantage mean’t I was happy enough with this momentary issue.
The Ego was silent in use, no tube noise or hum even with the volume turned full up was evident, this was the case with the Magister’s and also with the Grado’s or Sennheiser headphones.
After running the Ego and Magister’s in I sat down to have a listen and up first was Daft Punks most recent studio album Random Access Memories. A lovely album that mixes the disco sounds of the 70s with the French duos – Guy-
The beginning of Giorgio by Moroder has the man himself talking about his early years and in the back ground the sound of folks chatting in a bar or club, before the instrumentation gets going fully and through the Magister + Ego pairing the club acoustic and detail of those talking was clear but not bright or etched. The openness, air and acoustic drew me into the club soundscape and then the instrumentation started and I was immediately impressed with the fluid ease in which the complex swirling synths and layering was open and detailed, but not hyper detailed in the way some headphones can sound, one of the things that put me off headphone listening.
The Magister’s are musical, but detail isn’t machine gunned at the listener but rather revealed in an easy, organic and musical way. My foot was tapping along, my head popping and the music was catching me up in its boogie magic, I had to restrain myself lest I be swept up into having a dance – not a particularly pretty sight but such was the infectious joy in the music.
Bass has depth and articulation, not just a plodding along, atonal blob. The midrange was clear and articulate as was the treble and the soundstage/soundscape was fairly well developed outside of my head. That is the other thing I don’t particularly like about headphones, music trapped between my ears, very much in the head. Now the Magister’s were not as out of the head as say a pair of Ergo (2) helmet headphones – boy one looks silly with these on – but the listening experience, at least as far as I am concerned existed enough out of my head to be enjoyable – and enjoy it I was.
I listened to a number of other albums, in full and selected tracks, and my enthusiasm for the Magister + Ego pairing remained strong. All the aspects I enjoyed so much with the Daft Punk album remained the case with Dead Can Dance – Into The Labyrinth album, and Fleetwood Mac’s – Rumours classic and even an MP3 copy of Iona’s – Treasures, best of album. The Magister + Ego pairing only to obviously revealed the lack of resolution in the MP3 download, but it still weaved enough magic and made the tracks sound very good.
My usual reference track off Dead Can Dance’s Into The Labyrinth, The Carnival is Over sounded wonderful as did the track Birds where the Magister’s revealed a wonderful level of detail and openness. I was beginning to hear, what it is that those who only chose to listen to headphones, but can use speakers, enjoy so much that makes them reject conventional in room speakers – interesting.
In order to try and get a handle on what was doing what I substituted the Ego for the Ifi Audio iDac (3) and listened to the same tracks.
Firstly the overall presentation was a tad leaner, and flatter with a somewhat more etched sound, and there was a degree less dimension to the opening of the Daft Punk track Giorgio by Moroder. Doing a direct swap to the Ego, it was clear it was tonally richer, with more weight, scale and a lovely organic quality. It shouldn’t be inferred from me saying that, that the Ego was thick or heavy sounding, as it wasn’t, it was open and detailed but had a fuller palette of tonal colour than the Ifi, the Ifi had a more HiFi sound – more driven and hurried sounding, whereas the Ego was effortless, with beautifully rendered ebb and flow – a more natural sound.
I compared the Ego + Magister, to the Ego + Grado GS1000 and Sennheiser HD560, as I did to the Ifi Dac + Magister, Grado GS1000 and Sennheiser combos. There was a fair bit of consistency in doing this, and it showed up the character of the Ego compared to the Ifi as being richer and more organic sounding as a headphone amplifier. There were no serious issues re drive, as both amplifiers drove the headphones well, though I felt the Ego had just a smidge more drive with the Grado GS1000’s than had the Ifi DAC.
Comparing the Magister + Ego to the Grado + Ego pairing I thought that the Magister’s held their own well despite the big price difference and the difference in type of headphone, closed back (Magister) to open back (Grado). After a fair bit of back and forward listening the Grado had the edge – just – re openness, and detail retrieval, with soundstage size slightly bigger and more out of the head than with the Magister. However the Magister had more weight scale, and the ability to render an acoustic with better definition, never mind more bass extension and pure boogie factor.
Upping the Game
As a final test I decided to try the Magister’s with my Audio Valve RKV mk2 OTL ECL85 valve headphone amplifier, which I hooked up to my Accuphase DP57, via Audience AU24 Rca to Rca interconnect cable. This amplifier is purely analogue with no internal DAC.
I tried the Magister’s straight into the RKV but with the Magister’s being 64 ohm, I didn’t feel this sounded its best and after a quick listen I opted to hook them up to the Audio Valve impedance matching device the ‘Impedancer’ , which allows settings of 8,16,33 and 64 ohm to be made to better match with sub 100 ohm headphones – this sounded much better.
Listening to Daft Punk’s Giorgio by Moroder was stunning, the Magister + RKV combination brought better instrument separation, more air and space, image depth and detail than the Magister + Ego pairing had to offer, and yet the tonality was similar.
The Magister + Ego headphone amplifier pairing was not as good as the RKV and yet despite the better sound of the RKV – not surprising considering the large difference in price between the two – the Kennerton Ego need not hold its head in shame as it achieves a lot for a pretty modest cost, sounding very good indeed.
Interested to compare the Magister’s again to the the Grado GS1000’s I hooked them up to the Audio Valve RKV+Impedancer changing the setting to 32 Ohm to match the GS1000’s 32 ohm’s.
On went Giorgio by Moroder and as with the Grado+Ego I heard a lighter presentation than the Magister’s but the RKV I think was a better fit with the Grado headphones as the somewhat spotlit, coolness of that pairing was much ameliorated. This pairing was better balanced and more musical than it had been with the Ego, in fact I would have to say that this pairing was better in certain areas, but not all.
The Grado+RKV was a bit more open, detailed and was less HiFi sounding than it had been with the Ego headphone amplifier – volume still needed a slightly higher setting – the Daft Punk track Giorgio by Moroder had a tad more air and space, depth and focus than it had via the Magister+RKV, and yet the boogie factor and bass weight was better with the Magister+RKV set up.
And therein lies a quandary, as to which was ultimately better, an easy thing you might think, more openness and detail vs a slightly richer, better bass weight and boogie factor ummm rubs chin in thought.
This has always been one of those things in audio that more openness, more detail more of everything does not always result in musicality, often it results in a type of presentation that no matter how impressive isn’t quiet natural, much like turning the brightness, contrast and colour up on a television. Some folks like that, but for me the Magister headphones had a quality either with the Ego or the RKV that I preferred by sacrificing a little HiFi detail and openness for a more natural presentation.
In away the sound differences here were akin to solid state amplification vs valve (tube) amplification. The Grado’s and Audio Valve RKV was akin to very good solid state and the Magister and RKV like a very good valve amplifier. I know which I ultimately prefer, and that’s valves.
The Kennerton Audio Magister’s are lovely headphones both in looks and sound. To my mind they are very good value for money, beautifully made and punch above their price point in performance. Yes it can be argued that the Grado GS1000’s I used during this review are the better headphone but in the round I enjoyed the Magister’s more. To me they were simply more enjoyable to listen to.
Negatives, well I can see some people with bigger heads than mine maybe finding them a bit too much of a clamp on their head – they were a firm fit for me – but one massive plus for them is they did not make my ears sweaty at any point and that issue no matter how good the headphones would make me stop using them – for instance I never entertained Stax because of that problem.
The Ego headphone amplifier is a more problematic item, not because it sounds poor, because it most certainly does not, in fact it worked very well with the Magister’s (not really a surprise) and despite a possible slight synergy mismatch issue with the Grado’s, it sounded good there too. I was in fact very impressed with how close in certain areas this headphone amplifier sounded compared to the vastly more expensive Audio Valve RKV, however ultimately the Audio Valve RKV is the better amplifier here but its an entirely different product not having an internal DAC.
Compared to the similarly priced Ifi DAC the Kennerton Audio Ego is better, though it should be born in mind that this was not the latest version of the Ifi DAC I compared it to, so I have no idea how the Ego compares to the latest iDAC – I worked with what I had to hand.
Where the Ego falls down slightly, is not having an audio output so it can also be used as a DAC source into a system. This would add to the cost, but would increase the flexibility of the Ego (worth thinking about Kennerton) also making the Ego ASIO compatible would be a nice touch as well.
If you are looking for a headphone amplifier to use along side your computer, with no desire to hook up to an amplifier then the Ego should definitely be on your audition list, as it sounds very good, particularly with the Magister headphones.
Final Results –
Kennerton Audio Magister – Highly Recommended.
Kennerton Audio Ego Headphone amplifier – Recommended but with usage/flexibility caveats.
Source of Loan – UK Distributor/retailer.
UK Distribution – Nu Nu Distribution http://www.nunudistribution.co.uk/
Contact Details – 0203 5442338 Office hours Monday-Friday 10am to 5.30pm. Email us at email@example.com
Product Reviewed – Kennerton Audio Magister Headphones £750, Kennerton Audio Ego £375
TechnicalDriver Unit42 mm, Frequency Response10-26000 Hz, Sensitivity101 dBImpedance64 Ohm, Maximum Input Power500 mW, Cord length 3.0 m
Headphone class “A” vacuum tube amplifier; USB DAC; Input Power DC 12V 1A, TUBE: 1X 6N2-J ( or 1X 6N1P USSR), Output Power: 500mW x2 @100 Ohm load, T.H.D. <0,1% @100 Ohm, 1kHz, 300mW, Headphones Impedance 30 to 300 Ohm, Input Sensivity: 750mV, Frequency Response: 20Hz~40kHz, S/N: 88 dB, Input: RCAx1, USBx1, Output: 6.5 Jack x1, D/A: BurnBrown PCM2702
Website – Kennerton Audio http://kennerton.com/index.php?route=common/home
Address – Fischer Audio/Kennerton Audio
(1) I deliberately avoided reading or watching any reviews of these headphones during the time I had them for review.
(3) I am well aware this is a non available product superseded by the iDAC2 so keep in mind I am not in any way referring to the mk2 DAC’s performance during this review.
© Text and Photos Copyright 2016 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio. Except album sleeves/manufacturers images Copyright resides with those owners.
NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.